In 1516, Thomas More published Utopia, and the world learned a new word to describe a perfect society. Of course, the converse also had to emerge, so audiences have also enjoyed fictional accounts of when a society becomes the worst version of itself: the dystopia. This narrative is fertile ground for examining many themes. One recent popular and successful example is The Hunger Games trilogy. The world of Panem in The Hunger Games offers a profound commentary on the culture we live in as all good dystopian stories do because of the ways it bears a resemblance to our reality.
The book series began with The Hunger Games in 2008, followed with Catching Fire and Mockingjay, all written by Suzanne Collins. The land of North America in the distant future is now the nation of Panem, with 12 Districts oppressed by a central Capitol. 74 years before, the Districts rebelled, so the Capitol defeated them and began The Hunger Games, an annual televised fight to the death among one boy and one girl aged 12 to 18 from each District. 24 Tributes go in the Arena and one Victor comes out. Then 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in the Games and a new revolution begins.
The name “Panem” is derived from the ancient Roman writer Juvenal and his assertion that the Roman ruling elite lured the public into complacency by feeding and entertaining them, or with bread and circuses; in the original Latin, “panem et circenses.” Gamemaker-turned-revolutionary Plutarch Heavensbee tells Katniss this in Mockingjay. It is ironic the Capital chose to name the nation the word meaning “bread” since the vast majority of the population do not have enough to eat. The citizens of the decadent Capitol, meanwhile, overeat at parties and then take an emetic to vomit and eat more. The circus is taken care of, though. The Games are not only televised, there are interviews of all Tributes leading up to the contest, and a Victory Tour for the survivor afterwards. There is betting on the Games. The Tributes can gain sponsors among the Capitol’s viewers who send them needed supplies.
The powerful impact of a tale like this reaches its peak when the audience can recognize glimpses of their own society. The clear economic disparity between the Capitol and the rest of Panem resonates in our world of the one percent, while reality TV spectacles are now so old as to be a staple of programming for many channels. These elements may be heightened from our own experience but their presence serves as a caution and a warning to avoid the same circumstances.
Dystopian stories like The Hunger Games can provoke thought about the world we live in, as well as be simply entertaining. This series does both. Panem is a place that can feel relatable at times and not far enough away at other times. Let’s hope that when it comes to our society turning into a dystopia, the odds will be ever in our favor.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton lives in Ohio with her dog Lily. Her favorite things are movies and books, and her hobby is editing fan videos.